An audio and video podcast of my trip hitchhiking around the world by sea.
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Small But Significant

I climbed into the dusty cockpit of an old pick up truck, no surprise considering the powdered dirt roads it pushed through for a living. The driver and I immediately reached an unspoken agreement not to speak. We’d never met before, yet talking felt both unnecessary and uninviting. We shook hands. I closed the door. He drove. I looked out the window.

The light pushed the sun past the desolate mountains that boxed in this dessert valley town and with the loss of light the cold air grew more bold. I knew the school was remote, I had no idea just how remote. So as the driver silently drove without expression, I stared out the window with my thoughts while a rickety pick-up clattered loudly across a washboard road to a concert of clanks and bangs.

One dirt road turned into a lesser dirt road, which eventually became no more than a sandy wash. With the dimming sky, I grew anxious to arrive. The driver, blankly guides the truck through a pack of llama and keeps driving until finally with only enough light to silhouette the hills, we came upon a dinghy white church and two lonely buildings. The children begin to gather.

The sun had fully set. I had traveled 20 hours by bus to Salta; shopped for and bought a freezer, then drove 4 more hours to San Antonio De Los Cobres, left my bags, switched cars and drove one more hour away from the closest human to reach this school. Now I would stay for a while, drive back across the dark country sleep a few hours, then rise before the sun to retrace my steps back to Buenos Aires. I could have sent the money. I could have stopped in Salta, and bought the freezer and returned… but I needed to see this.

I’m glad I did. With no common language a woman came out to meet us. She greeted the driver, then myself, then lead me to one of the buildings. Inside a row of modest bunk beds filled a small room. One young man was in the room, he greeted me with a smile that warmed the cold room. I’m not sure if he was a student or helper, but he knew a very small bit of English, which he was pleased to share. On occasion, a young face would peek cautiously around a corner, then disappear again.

We walked into the next building over where I was offered a hot cup of matte and bread. I sat with the boy and continued to talk as much as we knew how. When our conversation reached its limits, the boy stood and returned with a guitar. Moments later the other children entered and sat around the table, all watching closely, guardedly. The young man with the guitar spoke pleasantly to the others, all younger in varying ages. He convinces them to sing.

Some of the kids grab percussion and play along. Some sit, statues staring at the newcomer. Their voices weren’t strong or especially lovely, but the moment, the memory that I will forever carry with me is both strong and beautiful. I take pictures and share each captured memory from my bright digital screen with the curious brown rosy faces. A few smile at their reflections, several bottle their reactions unsure of the moment.

In the same room where the children sang, where I grinned and took pictures, just steps away was a small cage. From a single wire, swung several pieces of raw and dried flesh. It housed the meat that made their meals and it was enough to turn your stomach. It was what they had though. It was what we would soon replace. It might have been 1½, maybe 2 hours, but every minute was special. When it was done the children were dismissed to their rooms.

In the big scheme of things, I didn’t do much. I drove a ways. I took money that you donated, bought a freezer, and made a trip to the school it would help.  I listened to children sing. I clapped. I shook their hands. But for me it was much more. I took a peek into a small, quiet existence of group of people, few ever see. And for all the waiting, for all the driving, and futile attempts to communicate along the way, it was worth every minute.

In the end, I said good-bye to every one, climbed back in the truck and pulled the heavy door shut. The driver got in and without a word began to drive. I sat, stared into the darkness, and watched my memories play warmly back.


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